All the best stories follow a similar line. Firstly, there’s this little guy, unknown, quiet, but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with his ever-so-simple understated life. Deep down though, locked away in the secret secluded corner of his mind, where amazing hopes can survive untouched by the harsh cruelty of reality, he has his dream. He dreams about the day when everyone will know his name, recognise him, respect him and smile; when they’ll celebrate his achievements, and nod approvingly at him; when he becomes a big guy. It’s never going to happen of course, he’s sure of that, but he has his dream to keep him warm on the cold and lonely nights, and he keeps wishing.
Then, there’s this big guy. He’s OK. Quite often not a bad sort of chap really, but he’s hogged all the glory for himself, and when the little guy tangles with the big guy, the outcome is only going one way, isn’t it? Both the little guy and the big guy want to be on the big stage where all the brightest lights shine. Even if he gets there, the little guy knows he may not get a starring role. He may only appear briefly, but if he can just beat the big guy, he would have his ticket to the ball, get to mix with the big players, his wish would come true. It would be something no-one could ever take away from. For a while at least, he’ll have become a big guy as well.
Sadly, of course, dreams are mere whims of fancy. They’re never meant to played out in real life. Never tested in real life. Never seen in real life. That little guy can wish all he likes, but to quote Lev Grossman, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” Dreams are for stories, as novelist Grossman would confirm, and that’s where they stay. Well, perhaps. Sometimes, just sometimes, wishing can make it so, dreams get into stories, and stories get into real life, and the little guy does become the big guy. Sometimes, just like the stories that so often begin with, “Once upon a time…” the little guy gets to go to the ball. Don’t believe me? Well read on. Continue reading →
After winning the FA Cup in 1970, defeating Leeds United in a couple of brutal battles first at Wembley, and then in the replay at Old Trafford, Chelsea entered the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Under the guidance of their young and upwardly mobile coach Dave Sexton, the club were keen to prove their credentials of being more than a showy collection of flashy players more at home in Carnaby Street than on a football pitch. With the FA Cup victory suggesting the club were on an upward trajectory, European football was the ideal place to stake their claim. It was their first venture into European competition. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Continue reading →
In 1981, at the age of 33, Ray Clemence decided to leave Liverpool. He had been with the club since 24 June 1967, when Bill Shankly paid a reported £18,000 to Scunthorpe United to take the goalkeeper to Anfield. Across the next 14 years or so, Clemence would accumulate enough silverware to fill the most ostentatious of trophy cabinets. Five League Championships, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs and five Charity Shields added up to a sizeable domestic haul, but there was also substantial success in Europe. No less than three European Cups came his way, along with two UEFA Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. With that lot bringing towards 20 medals, it’s a good job that Clemence had pretty safe hands if he was ever required to hold them all at the same time. Continue reading →
In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison. Continue reading →
There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is the best ‘foreign’ import to British football. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal. Others will tout for their particular favourites. Chelsea fans would perhaps posit Drogba. What may be less contentious though is the most likeable of imports to the British game – or perhaps the least disliked anyway. Is there much argument that such accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the nineties, the little Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs, covering the decade; two in Italy, Napoli and Parma, and then when donned in Chelsea blue at Stamford Bridge, he charmed so many fans of all clubs with incandescent magic in his boots and an infectious smile on his face.
Stardom came late to Zola. At 23 years of age, he was still playing third tier football in his native Sardinia, when Lucciano Moggi took him to Napoli. If taking a gamble on an unknown player that had seemingly slipped through the net of so many other clubs seemed strange to many, the astute Moggi would reap huge dividends on the move. At the time, the Partenopei were enjoying a golden period at the San Paolo, with the incomparable Diego Maradona in his pomp and sweeping all before him, aided and abetted by the razor-sharp finishing of Brazilian striker Careca. For a player plunged into the torrid world of Serie A from the more sedate backwaters of Sardinian domestic football, it was a finishing school par excellence, and one that benefitted Zola immensely. He would go on to be the anointed successor to the Argentine magician and the club would win the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in his time there. In his final season with the club, the impish Zola would accumulate more assists than any other player in the league.
In four seasons with Napoli, he would increase both the number of games played, and amount of goals scored in each succeeding term. Financial strife hit the club however, and Zola was one of the more marketable assets available to bring in much needed money. Parma paid some ₤13 million for him and, after scoring 32 goals in slightly more than a century of appearances, he moved to the Crociati.
At the time, Parma were riding the crest of a sponsorship wave that would, later, come crashing down around them. When Zola joined in 1993 however, success was still the order of the day, and under the charge of Nevio Scala, a UEFA Cup triumph was secured in 1995. The following year however saw the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, and the end of Zola’s time in Parma would quickly follow. Wedded to a rigid team structure of 4-4-2, and convinced of the virtue of playing Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa at the spearhead of his team, Ancelotti’s decision pushed Zola out to a wide midfield position that hardly suited his abilities. After two seasons under Scala when he scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, being shunted out to the flanks – and even the bench on occasions – inevitably blunted Zola’s striking sharpness. In the 1995-96 season he would net a dozen times in 36 games and in the following term, things deteriorated even more. He would score twice in 12 games. Zola had a choice. At 30 years of age, he could see out his time in Italy and watch his career dwindle into anonymity, or he could he could look for a new club. He chose the latter.
In West London, Glenn Hoddle had moved on to the England hot seat, and Ken Bates had installed Ruud Gullit in his place. Having played in Serie A, the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5million cheque secured his services. At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player already arguably past his best and into the latter years of his career. They would be proved to be so very wrong. This was still the time when nobody at Stamford Bridge had heard of Roman Abramovich, and the club hadn’t secured a trophy for more than two decades. The arrival of the little Italian would change all that though. An FWA award of Footballer of the Year in his first term in England speaks of the impact he had on the club – and the game in general. Not only as an outstanding player, but apparently a thoroughly nice bloke as well.
Mention the name of Zola to any Chelsea fan and a misty-eyed glance into the middle distance will be accompanied by a gentle sigh of reflective appreciation. Not only did he bring success to the club, but he did so with a smiling countenance and a professionalism that would set new standards. A brace of FA Cup victories, a European triumph in the Cup Winners Cup when a half-fit Zola came off the bench to win the game with a sumptuous strike, and a UEFA Super Cup required space to be found in a Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet more accustomed to the acquisition of dust rather than silverware.
There were goals, of course, but there was magic too. Eighty strikes for a team that was never really threatening the major powers of the game is success enough, but for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made Gianfranco Zola such an icon of the time, it was his ebullience and sheer entertainment value. Dancing feet, and the ability to beat the same player three times in a telephone kiosk were the entrancing memories that he brought, and when he scored goals, so many were gems that still warm the hearts of fans inclined to reminisce wearing blue-tinted spectacles.
Ask Chelsea fans to recount their favourite moment of Zola magic and you may get a variety of answers, such was the stardust sprinkled on his play in so many games. The thumping strike that won Chelsea’s first European trophy for more than 25 years. The back-heal flick from a corner that bamboozled Norwich. Any number of poetically converted free-kicks curled past befuddled goalkeepers. The time that he was hemmed in by the corner flag by Liverpool defenders, but danced away from them, putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in quick succession. All were moments were to savour.
A somewhat spiteful fate conspired that the arrival of Abramovich coincided with the departure of Zola. A club in financial trouble couldn’t afford the offer of a new contract, and Zola agreed to return to Sardinia and Cagliari. Legend has it that Abramovich offered a hatful of money for the 36-year-old to stay with the club, but Zola, ever the honourable man, had given his word to Cagliari and wouldn’t renege in his vow. Hardly anyone would have expected anything different from Zola. He would arrive there and see them to promotion in his first term – of course, he would. It was just one more piece of magic from the incomparable Gianfranco Zola. Icon of the nineties.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties’ series on These Football Times website).
Into the tail-end of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ England thought itself to be the beating heart of world culture. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were just a few of the groups of the day redefining the musical era across the globe. In fashion Mary Quant, and similar outlets on Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s Kings Road were tearing asunder the grey clothing of post-war austerity as their vivid colours burst outrageously into the world, as a butterfly from a chrysalis. And, in football, England were world champions. The afterglow from the Boys of ’66 and that July day at Wembley was still redolent and had further inflated the arrogant and almost ubiquitous belief that this was the home of football.
All of this was, of course, well before it became almost obligatory for English clubs to stack out their squads with players from all parts of the globe. That said though, even in these hedonistic self-centred times, a few hardy pioneering souls ventured beyond their homeland to ply their trade amongst the pompously insular English football environment. Amongst that brave few was a Dane who initially moved to Scotland to turn professional, burning his international career temporarily as the Denmark team was only open to amateur players at the time. He would later join Newcastle United where he would earn legendary status, achieving things that more celebrated later lights such as Malcolm Macdonald, Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer could only dream of, before seeing out his time in the country with Blackburn Rovers, as his international resumed. He would then return to Denmark to see out his playing career. Continue reading →
British football’s first European success and the ‘Glory, Glory’ nights of Tottenham’s 1963 Cup Winners Cup triumph.
After securing the domestic ‘Double’ in 1961, Tottenham Hotspur went into the following season’s European Cup competition with an ambition born of conviction. They would, however, come up short against Benfica in the semi-final. Furthermore, the exertions in Europe may also have compromised their domestic league campaign, and Bill Nicholson’s team ended up in third place. They did however retain the FA Cup, with a 3-1 victory over Burnley. The title went to Ipswich Town, under the guidance of Alf Ramsey. The Suffolk team would fall against AC Milan in the First Round of the European Cup, after romping through the preliminaries against a Maltese side. For Spurs however, it was the Cup Winners Cup, and although the poor relation of European club competitions, lifting the trophy would still give the North London club the not inconsiderable distinction of being the first British club to triumph in such company. Continue reading →
The name of Jock Stein is lauded – and rightly so – throughout British football as one of the greatest managers of all time. Whilst manager of Celtic, he would accumulate ten Scottish league championships, eight Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. He would also lead the club to unheralded glory when they lifted the European Cup in 1967, becoming the first British club to ascend to such honour.
Many years before that momentous Lisbon evening however, Jock Stein, coach to Celtic’s reserves after injury ended his playing career, would be told that he would never be promoted to the manager’s chair due to his Protestant beliefs. It was this barrier that caused him to leave the club in 1960, in pursuit of a managerial CV that would compel the cub to rethink. Five years later, he achieved that goal and returned to Celtic Park as manger to lead the club to glory. In between those times though, he would cut his teeth as manager and begin the legend of Jock Stein the manager that wold lead to European glory, at lowly Dunfermline Athletic. Continue reading →
If the sobriquet of ‘Dolly and Daisy’ sounds like a double act from an Old Time Musical Hall playbill, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that, thanks to their manager, it was in fact the nom de guerre of the most successful central defensive pairings of the early Premier League years. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were the pair in question, and they would write their names large into the history of the most successful football club of the time. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance that the pairing had on the development of Manchester United’s domestic dominance, when Sir Alex Ferguson built his dynasty of success. Suffice to say however, that the unassuming pair at the heart of the Old Trafford backline was the rock upon which the Scot relied over a seven-year partnership jammed full with trophies. Continue reading →
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.” Arsenal’s testing four days in May 1980.
Using that particular quote from Kipling is a well-trodden path and, to illustrate its relevance, I’ll lean a little on another master of words, Oscar Wilde, whilst at the same time apologising for mangling his famous couplet, ‘to lose one cup final may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Across four testing days in May 1980 however, that’s precisely what happened to Arsenal. Continue reading →